(Russian Salmon Pie)
"Plain old" salt and pepper are hardly that. These seemingly simple condiments have fascinating histories, and have played major roles in world affairs. This month, we'll look at pepper.
Pepper came out of India about 4,000 years ago, but appears not to have reached the Mediterranean until the 5th century BC It was the first Oriental spice to reach Europe, and it was an immediate hit. Plato wrote that pepper is "small in quantity but great in virtue." Moving from Greece to Rome, pepper was soon being added to almost every Roman dish, even desserts. Emperor Domitian built a special market, the horrea piperataria, to handle the trade.
Before long, everyone had tried pepper, and everyone wanted more. Rome paid a tribute of 3,000 pounds of pepper to Alaric the Visigoth in AD 408, and kept Atilla the Hun at a safe distance by sending gifts of cinnamon and pepper. The importance of pepper continued to increase, and by the Middle Ages, it had become the medium of international payments. Dowries were paid in pepper, even among royalty, and a serf in France could buy freedom for a pound of pepper. Soon, wealth was expressed in terms of how much pepper a person had.
Venice became the center of the pepper trade in the Middle Ages, and with Europe consuming an average of 6.6 million pounds of pepper annually, Venice became wealthy—too wealthy to stay unopposed for long. The Portuguese took over the trade as soon as they were able to reach the Spice Islands, and prospered. The Dutch East India Company was formed, and took over the monopoly. When, in 1599, they raised the price from three shillings to eight shillings a pound, a group of London merchants formed the British East India Company to compete with the Dutch. Soon, the French were in the game, too. Competition brought prices down, and increased the customer base.
By the time the U.S. was a country, demand was still rising. Salem, Massachusetts became the new Venice, and in 1805, re-exported 7.5 million pounds of pepper. The first American millionaire, Elias Haskett Derby, made his fortune importing black pepper into the U.S., then used his wealth to endow Yale University.
Today, pepper is the most widely used spice worldwide. Most pepper still comes from Asia, though Brazil has now entered the scene. Black and white peppercorns come from the same plant: black peppercorns are picked before they are ripe and left intact; white peppercorns ripen completely, then have the outer husk removed.
Peppers vary greatly. The aromatic, spicy-sweet Tellicherry pepper contrasts with the hot, fragrant Malabar—and both are worth trying. India's peppers have the most perfume, but those from Lompong and Sarawak are also good, balancing nicely between heat and pungency. Sumatra's Muntok is said to be the world's finest white pepper.
Russians love pepper, and it is a common, often lavishly-used ingredient. You could double or triple the pepper in the recipe below and still be well within custom. Kulibiaka, Russia's famous hot salmon pie, is rich and delicious, and is relatively easy to make.
(Russian Salmon Pie)
1 lb. butter
8 oz. cream cheese
2 cups flour
4 oz. Chinese bean thread noodles (transparent vermicelli/saifun)
1 can chicken broth (about 2 cups)
1-½ lb. salmon fillet
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ lb. mushrooms, coarsely chopped
⅓ cup chopped, fresh parsley
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried dill
3 Tbs. lemon juice
3 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1 egg, well beaten
Soften ½ lb. butter and mix with cream cheese. Add 2 cups flour and mix thoroughly. Set dough aside.
Put bean threads and chicken broth into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, separating and pressing down the noodles until all are soft enough to be covered by the broth. Once broth boils, turn off heat and let noodles sit for 10 minutes. (They will absorb all the broth.)
Melt 4 Tbs. butter in a large skillet. Add onion, cooking over medium-high heat 3 to 5 minutes, until onion is soft but not brown. Add another 2 Tbs. of butter and the mushrooms to skillet. Cook until mushrooms are soft. Stir in 1 Tbs. lemon juice, salt, pepper, dill, parsley, and chopped egg, then remove from heat.
Melt ½ cup butter and add 2 Tbs. lemon juice. Cut the salmon fillet into pieces that will fit whatever baking dish you're using, dip the pieces in the butter, and allow butter to congeal (this happens quickly if fish is cold).
Roll out the dough until it is big enough to accommodate all the ingredients (this will be about ¼ inch thick, or slightly less). I recommend rolling the dough out on waxed paper, for ease of handling and clean-up. This is sticky dough, so lightly flour your rolling surface as well as your rolling pin.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Butter baking dish with 2 Tbs. of butter. Line the dish with dough, making sure that there is enough hanging over the edges that you'll be able to close the pie. Place salmon in the bottom of the dish, and drizzle in any remaining lemon-butter. Layer the bean thread noodles over the salmon, then pile the onion and egg mixture on top of the noodles. Fold the pastry over the filling, brushing one edge of pastry with the beaten egg before connecting the other side, to create a tighter seal. Then brush egg over all exposed pastry. (If you don't have a pastry brush, fingers work well.)
The easiest way to make this is in a dish with sides, such as a 9" square baking pan or similar, though shape doesn't matter. Slightly more difficult, but spectacular if you're serving this to guests: put dough in the middle of a buttered cookie sheet, mound everything carefully down the center, then close the pastry down the middle, sealing the center and ends with the egg. It should be roughly the shape of a loaf of bread. Before brushing the pastry with egg, you could whip up a half batch of pastry dough and cut out leaves or other decorations and place them on the pie, to disguise the seam, then brush everything with the beaten egg.
Place in oven and bake for 30‑35 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Enjoy.
To make this dish cheaper, you could make it with canned salmon or canned tuna, though it wouldn't be quite as elegant. Also, there is a vegetarian version that uses a couple of cups of sautéed cabbage in place of the salmon and doubles the number of hard-cooked eggs—but you'd definitely want to do this version in a baking dish, rather than on the cookie sheet.